Saudi Arabia has stepped up its efforts to resolve its more than three-year dispute with Qatar after US president Donald Trump’s election defeat, according to people briefed on the talks.
The move to end the Gulf states’ blockade of their gas-rich neighbour is being perceived as an attempt by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to curry favour with the incoming Biden administration and deliver a parting present to Mr Trump.
Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto leader, forged close ties with the Trump White House and the president stood by the crown prince as Riyadh grappled with its worst diplomatic crisis in decades after Saudi agents murdered Jamal Khashoggi two years ago. But the incoming administration of president-elect Joe Biden is expected to be far cooler towards the young royal who has drawn widespread criticism from Democrats over the killing of Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and the detention of scores of activists, businessmen and senior royals.
“This is a gift for Biden,” said an adviser to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. He added that Prince Mohammed “feels like he’s in the line of fire” after Mr Biden’s election victory and wants a deal with Qatar to “signal he is willing and ready to take steps”.
Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the royal court, said the Saudi leadership had for months been “open to put this issue to bed”. “For some time, they have been working on closing many hot files and clearly this is one,” he said.
The Qatar dispute is thought to be one of the more tractable issues for Prince Mohammed to resolve.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and transport links with Qatar in June 2017, alleging that Doha sponsored Islamist groups and was too close to Iran.
Qatar, the world’s richest nation in per capita terms, denied the allegations and all sides have until now refused to make concessions, resisting Washington’s pressure to resolve the crisis. The Trump administration has been concerned that the dispute weakens the Arab alliance it has sought to forge against the Iran and is frustrated that Tehran benefits financially as the embargo has meant flights to and from Qatar are forced to use Iranian airspace.
The latest talks were being mediated by the US and Kuwait with the aim of laying the foundations for direct negotiations between Riyadh and Doha, said a diplomat briefed on the talks.
Qatar wants to ensure there are preconditions before any bilateral talks. These could include a “confidence building” measure such as the lifting of the air embargo, the diplomat said. Another possibility would be to allow free movement of Qatari citizens to the countries that imposed the embargo, although Doha would want guarantees about their welfare.
Robert O’Brien, the US’s national security adviser, said this month that he hoped to see Qatar Airways being able to fly over boycotting Arab countries “in the next 70 days” before the end of Mr Trump’s presidency.
The adviser to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi said the Saudi and Emirati leaderships wanted Qatar to “tone down” Al Jazeera television network’s Arabic language channel, which critics accuse of being a propaganda tool for Doha, and to end its criticism of Saudi Arabia. Riyadh did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
After imposing the embargo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi presented Doha with an extraordinary list of 13 demands that included closing Al Jazeera, curbing Doha’s relations with Iran and closing a Turkish military base. But the adviser said Kuwaiti mediators had secured a new deal to replace the 13 terms to “pave way for a kiss and make up”.
A thawing of relations between Qatar, the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas, and its Gulf neighbours could also include the shipment of LNG to Bahrain, according to people with knowledge of the negotiations.
However, a person briefed on Doha’s position said that no details of confidence-building measures had been discussed. Gulf officials cautioned against any significant breakthrough in the near term. There are also questions about Abu Dhabi’s stance.
Last week, Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s influential ambassador in Washington, said that ending the dispute was not a priority, pointing to outstanding differences between the two countries over the future direction of the Middle East. But western officials and regional analysts said the UAE would likely fall behind its larger ally Saudi Arabia.
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington